The gamelan will ping and gently gong under a million piercing Java stars; the torchlight will flicker and glow on a thousand anxious faces; and, like a dew slowly soaking Papaya leaves in the still-shadowy dawn, a man draped in the crazy vines and tattoo lines of a royal batik will glide to the mic. His shades will shine, slick and dark as steaming coffee, and he will press his lips close to the wire mesh, and will croon the words we’ve gathered to hear, the anthem of the ancient kingdom of Jogjakarta.
“Jooooggjjaaaa… Jogja on my mind…”
His voice is honey and mint and a cool brook in the waiting shade. He’s the Indonesia Ray Charles. He’s the one who’s going to sweep this anthem I’ve planned off the page and into our ears. He’s the one who’s going to make it magic.
I’ve got it all planned. I just need to find that Indonesian Ray Charles.
Oh, and I guess I need to finish writing that anthem, too.
I mean, it’s kind of tough. What do you put in an immortal Jazz ballad? What can you possibly say to commemorate the city who makes the centuries flee beneath the weight of her magnitude and springing life? What’s going to fill those lilting verses of “Jogja on My Mind?”
Well, here’s my first thought: I need that Indonesian Ray Charles to sing something about the public bus from Borobudur to Jogja itself. I need to start with something about how I and my wife were once stranded at the Buddhist (not technically a) temple of Borobudur in Central Java, and we needed a ride back into town. I want to him sing about how I hated to pay the overpriced shuttles, how I turned up my proud nose at the taxis and the ojeks, how I opted instead for the public bus.
I might have him sing of the half-mile walk to find the station. It was fun; I saw jackfruit ripe. Each was grand as three watermelons. The tree was practically falling over under the weight of all the fruit.
Then, I’ll tell about boarding the bus—how I threw myself headlong into that moving dragon of a public transport, weighted down by backpacks as I was, because that bus sure wasn’t slowing down for me. I’ll say how rocketing yourself through the gaping hole in the bus’s side is the best way to get a seat to Jogja, whenever it’s on your mind.
I’ll say, “Enjoy Jogja’s buses’ window-open breeze, ‘cause you sure ain’t getting no AC.”
I’m going to put something else in that anthem: a reminder to be thankful that your bus driver is a laid-off F-1 pilot who’s seriously ticked about his current job status and is out to prove he has the chops to make it back on the circuit. I’ll say to smile as he red-lines his monstrosity of a bus and slams the shifter through the gears. Smile as he weaves between traffic lanes as if that bus were the size of a VW bug and his homemade horn on a plastic paddle makes him magically invincible. Savor the blind curves you spend on two wheels squealing into packs of scurrying pedestrians, horn squawking like a dozen flocks of drunken geese on New Year’s. Relish those moments you barrel down into oncoming traffic, clearly headed for everyone’s death, before whipping the clumsy, top-heavy behemoth back between frail motorbikes and donkey-carts. Smile, my friend, and enjoy each moment. It is magnificent. It is the second-most magnificent bus ride ever.
It’s what I think of when I’ve got Jogja on my mind.
Know, though, that Jogja’s not just Borobudur and public buses, it’s also home to the fabled Javanese dwellings and endless hospitality—or in our case, a certain little boutique hotel that swept us off our feet.
So the next verse to that anthem I’ve got planned, the next words spilling from the lips of Indonesia’s Ray Charles, the next verse golden under the stars and woven over the Jazz gamelan, will be about nights amid the soft glow of a garden, of a home among the silent, scurrying rainbow salamanders and a dawn heralded by chirping tropical voices in the palm fronds, of a forenoon beside a quaint pool, and an evening spent slurping the curries of the island—a milky blend of a coconut river and the spike and dance of chilis on the tongue. I’ll have him sing of a hot bath under waving palms, of a juicy fruit platter sliced finely for morning dining, of a sunrise soaking away the morning mists after a night drifted amid mosquito nets and cricket chimes.
Yes, I’ll make that man croon a ballad of the Java evening, that’s also part of the Jogja anthem I’ve planned. I got the ideas, I just got to get them onto the page and into that man’s larynx.
But I ain’t gonna stop there. No no no—I’m on a roll now. My anthem’s going to raise the Jogja Water Palace and make everyone revel a moment in it’s iridescence, make each listener’s ear trip back to the first time they heard the gurgling fountains there, make each nose slip back to the waxy heat of fresh-pressed batik steam rising of the hand-painted fabrics, make each foot flee back to the shoulder-wide streets winding crooked routes throughout the ancient dwellings, and I’ll wait for the eyes to close and recall the pictures they clicked among the dusty, half-roofed ruins, the Ozymandias walls now crumbling, now lending their gold and orange to dramatic backdrops for tourists’ profile pics, the winding stairs and regal halls once proud host to royal footfalls now the caretaker of scurrying amateur photographers and hopeful art hawkers.
The Water Palace is a crazy little world to itself within the crazy little world of Jogja, and I’d be a fool not to let my anthem slip through its streets and tunnels, its dripping fountains and time-scarred arches, its wide-eyed visitors and stoic, focused matrons tracing line after flawless lines of flame-melted wax onto meter after endless meter of fabric.
Water Palace, you place with a funny name and you host of so many fond memories, you’re definitely going in the anthem.
But you know who’s not?—And I know this little bombshell’s going to raise a few eyebrows—You know who’s not making it in my planned anthem?
Gasp now and get your shock over with, ‘cause I don’t want any complaints the night of Indonesia’s Ray Charles’s performance. I don’t want to hear any belly-aching or whispers or raised eyebrows there in the torchlighs, no second-guessing or oh-that’s-interesting comments the night the anthem debuts in the valley.
You see, the Kraton—that ancient, sprawling palace, that seat of a reigning king’s tiny fiefdom, that miniature bubble of Javanese tradition still alive and still thriving despite the bricks and mortar of globalization and Westernization forever pressing in on it—just ain’t getting in on my anthem to Jogja.
I’m doing it on purpose. I know it’s just sour grapes because I didn’t get to see it, but I can’t really sing about stuff I haven’t seen.
Oh, I went all right. I was there with my walking shoes on and my camera battery charged and my Lonely Planet read three times over. I was all tourist-ed up for it. But it closed at two. On a Sunday afternoon. It closed at two. During the peak hours for a weekend jaunt and an afternoon romp, it closed.
I guess I didn’t catch that in the guidebook.
So I didn’t get in—just a peek through the massive wooden doors at the ornate courtyard—and now it can’t go in the planned anthem. It just can’t.
What’s got to make it instead is the Malioboro shopping. It’s got to be there, amid the gongs and plings and plucky bomps of the ceaseless gamelans, my Indonesian Ray Charles, in all his smoothness and manly ripples of cool incarnate, will have to sing about going shopping.
I know, I know. Shopping is an abomination. But it’s a big deal in Jogja—the miles-long stretch of madness they call Malioboro, the crowded chaos housing everything from Bintang T-shirts to foam beer snuggies to hand-crafted batiks and meticulously lavished masks priced to move. Find for sale flip flops and magnets and back-scratching sticks, hats and boxers and hairbands. Outside, mules and motorcycles, bikes and taxis, chaos and order all stream together in a maze of changing money. Free market capitalism meets tropical paradise, and the call the thing a Malioboro.
Personally, my Malioboro saga involved snagging a couple batik tees I’d been postponing back in Jakarta, contemplating a leather satchel to replace my aging canvas knock-off I bought nearly a decade ago in Wengzhou, but never pulling the trigger, grabbing some souvenir gifts, and washing back into the street and the madness of Jogja.
Then there we were, Andy and I were both in the madness of the streets, shopping bags in our hands and one really big problem on our minds: How are we going to get to Prambanan before the sunset?
You see, skimping on the Kraton might (I said might!) be somehow forgivable for an anthem of Jogja, but skipping out on Prambanan?—no, we had to make it happen. The problem was this: Andy and I were in the middle of the city, arms full of shopping and camera and water bottles, the heaps of traffic swirling around us, and there was just an hour to sunset.
If the sunrise in Buddhist Borobudur is Jogja’s the tourist gold mine, the sunset in Prambanan, its Hindu rival across the valley, is the silver. We needed this one—not just for the sunset timing, but also because the park closes at six.
So there we are, in the middle of the shouting street, being bumped and hounded every which way by touts and horses, honking bikes and angry taxis, wondering how on earth we’re going to get outside the city to the storied temple in time, when a stranger strikes up a conversation.
“Hello, Mister. You buy the batik then?”
I looked at him blankly and made sure my wallet was still in my pocket.
“Remember, Mister? I see you inside looking at batik. Very nice that one. From Solo. It has Solo pattern. You see the factory for batik? You can go in Solo too. Very nice.”
I was still wary, and still hadn’t said anything.
“Yes, mister. Maybe tomorrow you can go Solo and see more very nice batik—”
“No. Sorry. I’m leaving tonight. Gotta be back in Jakarta tomorrow, you know.”
And I almost left him right there, almost missed out on what was going to be one of the most memorable Jogja moments, and the Jazzy climax to the anthem. I almost brushed him off and headed back in to the Malioboro madness. I almost missed it.
This man, you see, got us a good deal on a couple ojeks out to Prambanan. It took a little negotiating. It took us walking away at one point and hoping he would chase us down with the reduced price. It worked.
For any non-Indonesians out there, an ojek is a motorcycle taxi, a nifty little invention in cities like Jogja, and yes, part of my planned anthem to the city.
The next thing I knew, Andy and I were hopping onto the back of a couple motorcycles, arranging the bags on our backs and in our hands, and we were off—weaving through the honks and the stares, bumping elbows (literally) with the other motorbike drivers slipping around traffic on curbs and sidewalks, weaving through red-light intersections, spinning the dozen cc’s of those motors up to hummingbird-fast speeds, then braking back down to creep through stoplights sporting pounding gamelan-for-donations of the street corners. Andy had her iphone out for films and pics, I tried to smile and wave not become the next ojek fatality.
It was fun. It was needlessly dangerous. It was surprising we ever agreed to it, since—and this was my main objections all along—it would be incredibly easy to separate us, kidnap one or both, and hold for ransom or worse. Each time that our two scooters got a little ways distant, alarm bells started pounded in my head in my borrowed helmet. It’s nothing, I convinced myself. Stop being paranoid.
But it got worse as we got out to the country—winding around rice fields on roads I have no idea whether or not actually led to the storied temple of Prambanan. I wanted to be next to Andy’s ojek. But hey, anyone’s who’s ever been on any type of civilian convoy knows how easy it is to get the train split up. Multiply that by about 142 to create the Indonesia traffic coefficient, and by another 8 because we were on motorcycles.
So I said I shouldn’t worry—there would be no kidnapping, no need for me to seek police to track down my missing wife, no need for me to go all Bruce Willis and yippie-cay-yay my vengeance on poor, poor Jogja. No need to worry about a movie deal from Lifetime TV Movies for rights to turn our tragic tale to a tear-jerker meant to scare little old ladies away from foreign travel forever.
I was doing a good job convincing myself it was all in my head until my driver slowed, pulled to the shoulder and stopped.
Oh no. She’s gone. I’ll never see my poor little wi—
“Gas, mister.” he said, walking toward the vodka-bottle-filled-with-suspicious-liquid gas vendors on the side of the road. “Gas very quick,” he said as my lovely wife disappeared around the bend—my last glimpse of her smiling and filming her own abduction on the iphone.
I nearly round-housed him in the throat—Walker Texas Ranger style—and leaped onto the Honda Scoopy and tore off in all the screaming fury of all of it’s 15 cc’s into the Java backcountry.
By the time I decided to my round-house revenge, though, he was already re-fueled and we were already back on the road. The roundhouse couldn’t be performed too readily on the back of the scooter—unless you’re Jason Statham, of course—so my vicious ninja display would have to wait.
In the end, though, we made it to Prambanan with no issue other than the thick clouds shutting out the sunset. I tearfully embraced the wife I thought I’d never see on the face of this world again. But she blasted out of my grasp and sprinted toward the ticket booth.
“Only five minutes left to buy tickets!”
I was left empty-armed in the humid parking lot.
“So, Mister,” the drivers asked me. “You want us wait? Return you city, huh?”
“No thanks, fellas. I hear there’s a public bus back.”
Thinking it over now, the infamous ojek ride might be a bit sketchy for the glorious Jogja anthem. I might play it off as a testament to the notorious kindness the citizens there are reputed to possess in spades. I could use it to glorify the nature of the honest, humble ojek more interested in earning a simple living with a simple smile rather than hijack foreign brides and abscond into the jungles and volcanoes. I might be able to make it work. I’ll see.
But I know what has to work in that anthem: Prambanan. The overlooked step-brother across town from Borobudur, this Hindu temple would undoubtedly get center stage and top billing and starting position in just about any other town. Pity the devotees who were so devoted so close to such industrious Buddhists living just up the valley.
What can I make the Indonesia Ray Charles croon to commemorate the grandeur of the fabled Prambanan? Amid the torchlight and smiles, the starshine and flowing voice of the place crowding into all our minds?
Its thick spires round skyward, decked with dragons and frogs and fangs and fearsome demon faces. Staircases drop to the earth, encased between trolls glowering on the tongues of jaw-split snakes, proceeding from the mouths of thick serpents railing the stairs back to their genesis in the mouth of yet another demon. Round and round the mythic spikes sit fables, myths, and legends etched into the silent stones. Passages crest under arches, leading to grottos of figures black and shadowed from sunlight in the recesses—is that an angel of mercy or Satan himself in there?
Who knows? Just keep calm and trek on—there’s only so much sunlight left.
But as gothic as it all is, as ominous and foreboding and eerily fantastic to imagine this giant knoll teeming with chisels and burned backs bared to the stringent sun, hand after hand hammering out serpent after serpent, it can drive you wild to picture the place during worship—if ever this place was used for anything more than camera-fodder and facebook check-ins.
In Bali, the Hindu dancers perform the kecak dance—chanting and swaying and drumming in hypnotic rhythm until someone becomes entranced and dances madly over searing coals. The dancer, of course, is too ensconced in self-destructive reverie to notice his feet burning off his ankle bones. Check it out on youtube. Then imagine that multiplied by several thousand among the trippy shrines stretching across the vale.
Prambanan, you see, ain’t just what you see up top. Surrounding that scene is a sea of shattered stones stretching across the acres, waiting to be re-stacked, re-built, re-constructed from the ravages of the centuries. Waiting to be re-built into the forest of freaky shrines it once was.
But just imagine all that—that wide and teeming plain full of fire and drums pounding out the songs of desperate men devoted to gods who crave living flesh burned before them in rites of primal, obsequious auto-immolation. Smoke of living flesh curling over the serpents into the clouds wisping round the insatiable volcanoes.
Yeah, I’m telling you, that stuff has got to make into the anthem. I mean, I have no idea if Kecak was in Java, and you know, maybe those ancient villagers just gathered to sing sensible, theology-rich hymns to the sober pulse of an organ. How should I know? But the Kecak version is the one going in “Jogja on My Mind.”
But please, though I know the final cut of my anthem is going to rock, don’t feel obligated to flail wildly over fire of any sort. I would be slightly uncomfortable with that.
Just to be sure, though, at that time, Indonesian Ray Charles’s voice with fade, the beat will slow, the notes grow mellow, and we’ll return to the chorus, the lilting lines of the rice men in the dawn and the fog, pacing the marshes in the cool of morning, sunrise glory above and below, in air and in water, life sprouted from the very mud oozing between their toes. They are the monument. They are the real rock of this valley—their presence standing longer than all Ozymandias monuments, their simple cycle the megalith which outlives the sophisticated stone forever descending into ruin.
The Indonesian Ray Charles’s voice will melt its last note over our massed attention, and the eyes of each person will well in sweet tear-spills of rhapsody and remembrance. Jogja’s anthem will be finished, fading to the Java night, and there will be nothing left to do but count the ticket take and haggle with Indonesian Ray Charles about his cut of that stack of cash.
Jogja, just know that you’re on my mind. I want to come back.